Melbourne, Australia, has just had a number of experiences which only reinforce the fact that we have a tremendous privilege in simple, reverent worship and Christ-centered preaching based on proper exposition of Scripture.
You will recall the Roman church’s teaching about indulgences prior to the Reformation in the sixteenth century—how God could be bought. Perhaps now, in this age of marketing, we are seeing how God can be sold—and we are seeing it in supposedly Bible-loving Protestant churches. The truth is that we can neither buy God nor sell him, and the man-centered religious activity of man is still idolatry.
This article provides some reactions to the recent Howard-Browne meetings, which are the common stuff of much discussion in Christian circles at present. The great need is for real discernment. I believe the Holy Spirit is grieved by the lack of applied discernment, not only among ordinary believers, but also among pastors and ministers. Phenomena that are at best of no spiritual value, and are at worst of pagan and cultic origin, are being accepted as evidences of the power of God. We are bartering the gospel for a mess of pottage, a bowl of soup.
A LAUGHING REVIVAL?
In early 1994, a church near Toronto Airport in Canada experienced laughing, weeping, and even roaring like lions among its congregation, which belongs to the Vineyard Fellowship of charismatic churches associated with John Wimber. This experience, since dubbed “the Toronto blessing,” is regarded by its supporters as a time of refreshing and renewal and as a prelude to mighty revival. The pastor of the Toronto church had himself received an “anointing” through a South African evangelist, Rodney Howard Browne, who had moved to the United States in 1987 and ministered to him in 1993.
Thousands of pastors have since visited Toronto, and the phenomenon has spread around the globe. In Melbourne, Pentecostal groups promote it, and churches as diverse as Anglican and Reformed have been affected.
The story of the rise and spread of this teaching is found in several recent books, the following being the ones I have read: Dave Roberts, The Toronto Blessing (Kingsway, 189 pages); Guy Chevreau, Catch the Fire (Marshall Pickering, xii + 228 pages); Patrick Dixon, Signs of Revival (Kingsway, 349 pages); Mike Fearon, A Breath of Fresh Air (Eagle, viii + 258 pages).
Roberts and Fearon are British Christian journalists in sympathy with the movement. The books by them show a measure of concern about aspects of the movement and Howard-Browne in particular, but do not delve deeply into, nor follow through the logic of some of their concerns. Chevreau is a Baptist pastor from Toronto who has accepted the movement as from God.
He has expertise in church history and one third of his book traces experiences in the times of revival associated with the name of Jonathan Edwards, with a view to showing that what is now happening is parallel. Dixon is a well-regarded medical doctor who spends a quarter of his book giving a history of “emotional faith.” Interestingly, he refers to the “big revival” in the Scottish’Hebrides in 1949 led by Duncan Campbell (p.185), which would be far differently assessed by the evangelical preachers of the Free Church of Scotland. He also discusses medical perspectives and includes a useful thirty-five page appendix written by Bill Jackson of the Vineyard in mid-1994.
RODNEY HOWARD BROWNE
Howard-Browne was in Australia during May 1995, and I took the opportunity of attending a meeting in the Melbourne Entertainment Centre on Monday afternoon, May 22, with a member of my congregation, who had also attended a Sunday morning service at Richmond Assembly of God (the sponsors of the visit) the previous day. I would say that about 3,300 were present, including many Pentecostal pastors. The large majority were of Pentecostal and charismatic persuasion, with a wide age range represented.
The meeting lasted two hours and began with thirty minutes of singing (at high volume and repetitive in the modern fashion). Howard-Browne spoke for thirty minutes, as did Paula White, an American lady blessed through Howard-Browne. She claimed 50,000 converts in Los Angeles within three months, mainly children in marginalized areas. (There was reference to competitions in which one could win a bike, and to giving away 200,000 toys and Easter eggs, which makes me wonder a little about these converts.) During most of the rest of the time, Mrs. White laid hands on a large number of people who came forward to receive power, and who experienced prostration as a result. Only a couple of cases of (hysterical) laughter occurred. However, at the packed healing session on Wednesday night, attended by a friend, it was pandemonium among the 7,000 present.
While some may think that Holy Ghost fire, joy, and power is being poured afresh on God’s people, the meeting was a disappointment and a cause of distress to us. It was evident that many longed to see the power of God released in their lives. Pentecostals are encouraged to see God’s power evidenced in physical manifestations, and the people were ready to accept what occurred, especially after the hype associated with the anecdote account of her work given by Mrs. White. It must have made most pastors feel pretty powerless, and it was not surprising that so many came forward.
Howard-Browne, who was born in 1961, has a background in the Faith Movement associated with Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland. He was an assistant pastor in a vast Rhema church in Johannesburg belonging to this stream before moving to the United States. These men are much closer to New Age concepts than to Christianity, and they are in fact positively heretical on such fundamental teachings as the Trinity, the person of Christ, and the nature of faith (as the charismatic writer D.R. McConnell has ably documented in, A Different Gospel [Hendrickson, 1988, xix + 195 pages]).
Howard-Browne did not say anything, out of the way in Pentecostal circles when I heard him speak. But, while the mayor may not agree with the heretical Hagin/Copeland concepts, he has not criticized his friends either. In May 1993, Howard-Browne engaged in what can only be described as a slapstick comedy routine with Copeland, which was climaxed by Howard-Browne being rendered prostrate by Copeland. If it hadn’t been so blasphemous, it would have been a simply ludicrous performance. I have seen the video of this myself, and Fearon refers to it in his book (p. 122). Fearon thinks that Howard-Browne’s association with Copeland is “unwise,” but he does not doubt that he was seeing “genuine spiritual activity at work”—a lack of discernment common in the literature. Howard-Browne has written several books, although they are not very substantial in size or content. Flowing in the Holy Ghost (1991, vii + 109 ; pages) and The Touch of God (ix + 169 pages) are the main ones. There is nothing in them that the average Pentecostal would balk at, although one wonders about the following incident (from The Touch of God, page 101):
When I went to pray for a dear brother sitting to the left of me, he stood up and hugged me. Then he told me that he had died several years ago and had left his body for a time and was caught up into glory. He said he knew what was happening [in the meeting] was real because he had witnessed that same presence of the Holy Ghost—the glory of God—when he crossed over to the other side.
The same credulity applies widely. The Morwell Assembly of God church bulletin (April 2, 1995) reports that a man and his dog fell to the footpath under the power of God when walking past Northside Assembly of God. But is this really of the Holy Spirit? The Melbourne Herald-Sun for May 21, 1995 (p. 8 of Encore Supplement), has a brief article about Sir William Keys’s treatment for cancer at the hands of a Buddhist healer in Beijing, and you would think he was describing the symptoms typical at Howard-Browne meetings (including the desire to laugh). As Don Prout has said, “This is a solemn reminder that there are other explanations besides the touch of God for the unusual manifestations.” Howard-Browne, as I heard him, speaks simply and quite slowly, pacing up and down as he talks. He is a master of one-liners that get cheers, but they do not always work well on reflection. Some pastors are “not fishers of men, but keepers of the aquarium,” he said to applause, yet pastors are to feed and care for the people. He can be very critical of people in charismatic churches who fake or misuse the supernatural gifts. He can also be very critical of more traditional Christians indeed, the word hate was used in reference to them at one meeting, to applause. He didn’t raise his voice all that much, but he used it to great effect.
Howard-Browne does not represent anything particularly new. The message I heard was classic Pentecostalism with less Scripture than is usually the case. The Scripture text was Acts 1:8, and the argument was that power was promised, that speaking in tongues was not the be-all and end-all that some thought, and that great revival was near at hand. The little lady from America had believed God and found it come to pass, and we needed rebuke for our lack of success—“Some of you need to give up your theology because it doesn’t work.” And so, after the hype from Mrs. White, it was not surprising that large numbers came forward to receive the anointing, evidenced by prostration.
One must thank Howard-Browne for highlighting the failure of Pentecostalism to deliver, and its consequent need to be repeatedly hyped up. However, he leads these churches even further down the path of subjectivism. This is a most disturbing trend for the future of vital godliness. Assuredly the Spirit is being grieved.
A BRIEF ASSESSMENT
Even if we grant that God may restore extraordinary gifts to the church, when we measure what is offered today against the Scriptures, we find but a pale reflection of the original.
1. The claimed spiritual gifts
At Pentecost, other human languages were spoken, but today’s tongues are a kind of utterance that is not in general recognizable as human language.
The Bible teaches that edification accrues to the speaker in tongues in every case, but to the audience only if interpreted, thereby showing that the speaker always knows the meaning of his words; but today’s supposed speaker in tongues does not know what he is saying. Hence we see that edification is redefined as a feeling or emotion and substituted for the intelligent engagement of the mind with the Word of God under the blessing of the Spirit.
Prophecy today is subject to imperfection, while healings, insofar as they are established, are generally of the functional disorder type, which we would expect to be affected by religious change. We do not need to say that God does not heal today, but we do need to reject a healing doctrine built on faulty foundations.
Scripture is plain that not all believers had the extraordinary gifts in New Testament times. Thus, it is wrong for some people today to insist that all Christians should have them.
Belief is stretched beyond all reason in the recounting and explaining of current phenomena. I’m afraid the world can see more clearly than many of those who profess to be children of light.
2. Two-stage theology
The assumption is that one first becomes a believer and then receives power for witness as a second step. Thus, Howard-Browne claims to have been converted at age five and baptized in the Spirit at age eight. But the Scriptures are explicit that whoever believes will have as it were a fountain of living water within him; that whoever believes is born of the Spirit; that by Spirit-baptism we are all brought into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13); and that the experience of transition from old to new in the case of the apostles is not normative. In short, those born of God are not deformed at birth.
Rather than going through a crisis second stage, every believer needs to go on being filled with the Spirit; that is, he needs to grow in grace and knowledge, and this is to be reflected in growing maturity, particularly in relationships (Eph. 5:19ff.). The hunger for God is met not by the promise of a second empowering stage in Christian experience, but by exposure to the Word of God and growing discovery of the riches that every believer, even the simplest, has in Christ. The Spirit does not lead us beyond Christ but to Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. When we find the pearl of great price we are not called to lay it aside because there is something bigger and better on the horizon.
3. Attention on self
In practice, charismatic teaching puts.man at the center. Its thought is really that self-fulfillment and happiness are our right or are at least to be expected. God exists for man, not man for God. The Monday meeting that I attended, which had special reference to pastors, did not involve preaching about Christ—and,indeed,there was virtually no prayer, and virtually no reverence for God in the Biblical sense. The focus was very much along the lines of self-empowerment and converting the world. And of course the idea of a shortcut to be instantly on fire for God was not far away.
4. Natural, not spiritual
Charismatic teaching seeks to satisfy hunger for God’s presence with the crumb of physical manifestations. It does not attempt to plumb the depths of the significance of the Cross, but stresses simplicity in presenting the gospel. Usually Arminian in theology, it has a decisionist mentality which gives little room in practice for the Spirit at the point of conversion. Howard-Browne teaches the literal transference of an anointing, as literal as the ex opere operato theory of medieval Catholicism. Although it is stressed that God does the work, it is inevitable that “gifted” individuals become key factors and attain a certain “guru” status.
These models of “anointed” preachers become a measure of one’s own inadequacy. Like some at Corinth in Paul’s day, they are so rich and so full (even though they assure you that they are humble) that their devotees must often feel crushed and like failures. The desire for empowerment increases and the hope of some undeniable demonstration rises, yet it is a treadmill that one can never safely get off—unless one falls back into the arms of Christ. As the energy drains away, as the hype wears off, what does the prostration achieve? What does the laughter amount to? Some believers will press on, encouraged in witness, because of what they consider to be a sign of God’s presence; others will end up disillusioned. Assuredly Protestantism, so-called, needs a reformation, for it is fast reverting to paganism.
5. The witness of history
In undoubted movements of the Spirit in earlier times, physical manifestations occurred as people experienced conviction of sin and/or religious emotion, and this is perfectly natural.The wise preachers down played the significance of these things and put all the emphasis on the spiritual conviction assuing in a changed life. Today there is no such emphasis on repentance in the Biblical sense, while the physical manifestations are actually encouraged and regarded as likely proofs of God’s presence in blessing. In short, Iain Murray is right to state in his generous review of Chevreau’s book in the Banner of Truth (March 1995): “When weighed in the balance of history, and still more important in the balance of Scripture, there is too much in Pentecostalism which positively encourages the temporary and illusory.
Revivalis not worked up by man, and when it comes through the sovereign moving of the Spirit, it is evidenced by prostration of the spirit in true repentance, not by people lying on the floor smiling, running about on all fours like dogs or laughing uncontrollably. The prejudice of many outside the church, that Christians are simply out for money or are people who leave their minds as they enter the front door, is all too frequently confirmed today. Let us work and pray for a change in the situation, for true reformation and revival—and certainly for the gift of discernment.
Dr. Ward is the pastor of three congregations in Melbourne, Australia, belonging to the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia. Reprinted with permission from New Horizons, February, 1996.